A few years ago, I participated in an international conference on research policies in different countries (France, Canada, Italy and a few others). Among the audience were many people working for research agencies. After the presentations, one of these people asked the killer question: “But how do you define and measure excellence”? My answer was brief: “Excellence is a rhetorical figure and a filler: ‘Excellent’ is the one that your organization has chosen to support financially!”
Thus, the ERC, or the European Research Council (because Europe speaks English…), prides itself on retaining only 10-13% of submitted projects, which this body thus declares to be “excellent”. For its part, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) chose rather about 70% of the projects of Canadian researchers; It also states that it only keeps premium files, thanks to the “accurate” rating of course. In the humanities and social sciences, Canada’s pass rate is around 50%, due to a lack of sufficient funds to bring support in this field to the level of the natural sciences. To prove this to the government, we created a class of so-called “approved but not supported” projects. This shows that projects that get funded are great, but there are other projects that are also worth it.
But can we measure this “privilege” in a more objective way? The example of the EU program “Horizon 2020” is illuminating. With a budget of 74 billion euros, it has supported 31,000 projects and more than 150,000 researchers, as journalist Alison Abbott recalls in Article published at the end of 2020 in temper nature. We also learned that the Independent Evaluation concluded that about 80% of these projects were produced breakthroughs (a very strong term for “breakthrough”) or “significant progress”.
Knowing that real scientific breakthroughs are rather rare, such findings are surprising. However, when we look at the ‘evaluation’ in question, we see that it consists of subjective judgments on the part of the researchers who have been called upon to rate the projects. Dans un contexte d’évaluation de programs aussi importants, on peut penser que les « évaluateurs », heureux d’avoir des programs bien dotés, hésiteront avant de conclure que la majorité des projets n’ont en réalité des apporté le que Science…
Funding for teams already equipped is not efficient
In addition, knowing that “excellent” researchers already receive strong financial support, it is doubtful that adding millions more to the same team can really lead to amazing results. The Bibliometric studies Instead, econometric studies suggest that there is a law of diminishing returns: giving millions to already talented researchers results in less diversity and probability of original discoveries than giving half that amount to less talented researchers.
Finally, it seems that today’s filler discourse about “privilege” is facing another powerful discourse, that of “totalitarianism”. The idea of excellence is a corollary of excluding researchers or projects that are not excellent, communication experts from funding agencies believe they can avoid a direct clash between these concepts by suggesting – this is no joke – a new idea: “Universal Excellence”! Then we move from tautology to an oxymoron.
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